Don’t Take Ski Lessons from Your Romantic Partner
If you don’t know how to ski, hire an instructor—not your significant other. It might just save your relationship.
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Only five minutes into my first ski lesson, I was ready to fire my instructor.
“Don’t cross your skis!” she chirped, her long red hair blowing in the breeze. “Point your toes! Pizza turn!”
Nothing she was saying was registering. It was July 1990, and the snowfield atop Oregon’s Mount Hood seemed like a vertical block of ice. Several minutes earlier I’d tumbled off a chairlift for the first time, announcing my arrival to the sport of skiing with a spectacular face plant. Now I was at the top of a blue run, but I might as well have been atop Mount Everest, staring down the Khumbu Icefall. My rented skis felt like thin banana peels vaguely attached to my feet, and for reasons I still don’t understand, I was wearing Levi’s 501’s.
I careened and crashed repeatedly until I decided to slide down the hill on my butt. By the time I reached the lodge—soaked, aching, and miserable—I’d come to hate my instructor.
There was only one problem: she was my girlfriend.
Looking back now, I see that we were naive participants in an all too common drama—comedy or tragedy, I don’t know—that plays out on ski slopes the world over.
In Act One—call it “This Will Be Fun!”—the well-meaning, more experienced skier generously offers to teach their romantic partner the basics. The skier’s motivations are pure: to celebrate hard-won skills with that special someone, to bond, to share the stoke.
The beginner (sucker?) trusts their partner implicitly. The upsides seem obvious: they’ll spend more time together, grow closer over the experience, and save money on lessons.
Ski-shop technicians see it time and again.
“Usually, it’s the guy trying to teach the girl,” says Brian Anderson, manager at Kittredge Sports in Mammoth Lakes, California. “And it doesn’t go well.”
When Anderson sees DIY-inclined couples stroll into the shop to rent gear, he often tries to talk them out of their plan. “I tell them, ‘Don’t go there,’” he says. Sometimes he gets through and convinces the beginner to take a proper lesson with a trained instructor.
Other ski-industry veterans characterize the risks even more bluntly. “If you value your relationship, pay for a lesson,” says Patrick Latcham, vice president of sales and marketing at Colorado’s Telluride Ski Resort. A former instructor himself, Latcham has seen the consequences play out on the mountain. “No matter how good of a communicator you are with your partner, or how good you are at skiing, trying to teach your partner will really test your relationship,” he says.
Latcham understands the appeal of the DIY route. “They want to save some bucks,” he says. “But the savings are not worth it. You’re coming out on vacation to have fun. Giving tips to your significant other when they’ve never done it before is such an uphill battle. It can change the tone of your whole vacation.”
Of course, some couples don’t get the memo or won’t listen to reason, which brings us to Act Two. Call it “Blood, Sweat, and Tears.”
In my own case, my girlfriend, Andrea, tried to explain the basics of snow-plow turns. “It’s going to be hard at first,” she said. “You just have to go for it.” I went for it, but as I struggled, I started to resent her. After all, she’d convinced me this was a good idea. She told me wearing jeans would be fine. And she actually seemed to be having fun.
Such feelings aren’t uncommon, Latcham says. “You’re looking at it through the lens of, My partner is beating me at this,” he says. “The feedback is way harder to receive when it’s coming from your partner instead of a ski instructor.”
The resentment can work both ways, too. “Say it’s a powder morning,” Latcham says. “If you’re an experienced skier, you might be itching to ski the fresh snow. And then you’re stuck on a green run on a pow day on your vacation? That will only add more fuel to the fire.”
He’s right. Andrea and I weren’t there on a pow day, but even so, during my one disastrous descent, she eventually abandoned me on the mountainside so she could enjoy a few runs. (Do I sound bitter?)
Andrea had never taught skiing before, but even veteran instructors have trouble guiding their loved ones on the slopes. Latcham had two years of instructing experience under his belt when he offered to teach his wife and mother-in-law to ski. “They were excited about learning but weren’t ready to commit to a full lesson,” he recalls. “So I volunteered. I was excited to do it.”
He made sure they stuck to beginner runs, but from the start, Latcham recognized that the dynamic was different than it had been when he was teaching strangers. “I was nowhere near as patient with my wife and mother-in-law,” he recalls. He persevered, but over the next 90 minutes, he could sense his wife growing increasingly frustrated.
At one point, he told her matter-of-factly, “Put your weight on the downhill ski.”
She replied, “I am putting my weight on the downhill ski.”
Looking back on it now, he laughs. “That was the point where I realized it wasn’t working,” he says.
In the end, Latcham’s mother-in-law booked a private lesson with another instructor for the following day. But his wife, who was already an experienced snowboarder, never skied again. “She was done,” he says.
At least Latcham’s story has a happy ending. “We were able to laugh it off,” he says. “We’re still happily married.” During winter, the two hit the slopes together once a week: “She’s a happy snowboarder. I’m a happy skier. We get out and have a good time.”
Call their Act Three “Dodged a Bullet.”
As for me, my relationship with Andrea survived Mount Hood but came to a natural conclusion several years later, when we were both in our mid-twenties. We’re still friends, so I called her recently to see how she remembered that day on the mountain.
It’s all snowmelt under the bridge now, I told her. Or blood on the ice?
“I remember it vividly,” she said. “And I still feel really bad about it.”
Prodded for details, she added, “I remember watching you slide down. You’d given up. When I was getting impatient, I told you, ‘You just have to go for it.’ But then I left you up there so I could ski down myself.”
I’m glad she confessed to the crime, but I’m clearly not over it. “How could you just leave me up there?” I asked.
“I really wanted to ski,” she said. “But I can’t be too hard on myself. I was only 19, and when you’re 19, you’re really naive. Looking back, it could have been a lot worse if I were with a different person. That could have ended our relationship right there. But you were so forgiving.”
It’s all snowmelt under the bridge now, I told her. Or blood on the ice? Eventually, I took proper lessons and became a competent skier. Then I switched to snowboarding, which happily put more distance between me and my inglorious first time on a ski run. Still, I wish I’d heard Latcham’s advice earlier.
He suggests beginners take two days of lessons at the beginning of their trip. “Meet up with your partner for après afterward each day and talk about it in the hot tub,” he says. “Then on the third day, go out and ski together. You can show off some of the stuff you’ve learned. Then it’s less about teaching and more about getting time in together on the slopes. That’s the foundation for a healthy, happy relationship—and more ski vacations.”